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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Still successful at Heirloom, restaurateur and chef Mark Wombles opens Distilled at Gratz Park in Lexington

Wombles in Distilled at Gratz Park
Story and photos by Paige Mullen
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

Midway restaurateur and chef Mark Wombles has opened a new restaurant on the edge of downtown Lexington and hired a new chef for his Heirloom restaurant in Midway.

Gratz Park Inn, the small boutique hotel at 120 West Second St., has replaced the previous restaurant, Jonathan at Gratz Park, with  Distilled at Gratz Park.

While Heirloom is California style, the menu for the new restaurant is “contemporary Southern,” Wombles said in an interview at his new location. “No one here is doing it well or really doing it right now at all, so that is what we want to capitalize on.”

He said Distilled is similar to Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, and Nashville. Both Husk and Distilled place a modern twist on Southern cuisine. Husk has an award winning chef, Sean Brock, who grew up just across the Kentucky border in Virginia, 45 miles from Hazard, Ky., where Wombles’ family once lived.

Wombles spoke highly of the new chef taking over at Heirloom in Midway, Cameron Roszkowski.

"He is great,” Wombles gushed. “He came from a really great restaurant,” at the Blackberry Farm Resort in Townsend, Tennessee, “and I am really happy with Heirloom and everything that is going on so far.

Wombles said he is making sure that his ingredients at Distilled are fresh, and worked with executive chef Jeremy Simpson, who came from Heirloom, to come up with the new menu.

The Distilled menu features a tasting of country ham on the appetizer list, as well as a roasted autumn squash salad. Entrees on the dinner menu include short-rib ragu and shrimp and grits, a dish that was on Jonathan’s menu and remains on Heirloom’s, albeit with different recipes.

The interior of Distilled at Gratz Park, former site of Jonathan
While the interior of the restaurant has elegant touches, Wombles said he wants to make sure that the d├ęcor is not overbearing. He said that there is a clean and soft feel that he believes will allow the focus to be more on the food.

"What we plan on doing is take all of the non- essential elements out of fine dining,” he said before the restaurant opened. “So there are no white table cloths, there is not fancy attire, the servers are going to wear pink-and-white-striped Oxford buttondowns with dark denim blue jeans and black Chuck Taylor shoes."

Wombles said he wants an atmosphere with some fun, and an experience that is not "cookie cutter fine dining." He added, “I have never wanted to go with the flow.”

Wombles opened the Heirloom restaurant in the heart of downtown Midway in 2006 with help from his father, Henry Wombles. It is the top-rated restaurant on OpenTable.com in the Lexington area, but Wombles said he wanted to be in the city itself.

“Heirloom has done so well and I have always wanted to have a restaurant in Lexington and the opportunity arose,” he said. “The owners of the hotel contacted us and we were actually looking for a place in Lexington at the same time."

The Gratz Park Inn is at 120 West Second Street in Lexington
He has a new partner and investor for Distilled but declined to say who it is.

At this writing, Heirloom was number one on Opentable for best overall restaurant in the Lexington area, with 4.7 on a 5-point scale, just ahead of Coles 735 Main, Dudley’s on Short and the Merrick Inn, all at 4.6.

Wombles said that because Heirloom is small, it has been and will be able to take care of its customers differently than larger restaurants. Also, he said that Heirloom will continue to try to keep everything local as much as possible, especially during the warmer months.

Wombles was born in Winter Park, Florida, moved with his family to Lexington when he was 5, and attended Sayre School.

Before opening the Heirloom he was a cook at the Merrick Inn in Lexington and realized that was what he wanted to do. He moved to San Francisco and trained at the California Culinary Academy, now known as Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in San Francisco. Upon returning to Kentucky he worked at the fabulous but now defunct Maisonette in Cincinnati, as well as various restaurants in Lexington before opening his award winning Midway restaurant.

Mayor-elect and Midway restaurateur Grayson Vandegrift said he is impressed with what Wombles has done at Heirloom.

“He is a very good chef and everyone knows that,” Vandegrift said. “I think what he has done with Heirloom has been terrific; I think he will do well in Lexington.

Is there potential to open more restaurants? “There has been talk about opening another restaurant in two years,” Wombles said. “If this one does well then maybe in another city, like Louisville.”

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